What do you get when you combine an atomized, alienated public that possesses a deep and justifiable mistrust in institutions with a floundering press-political-entertainment complex that’s desperate to hold our nanoscopic attention spans? You get a nation of half-assed shamuses who’ve traded genuine political argument for paranoid fantasies about alien masterminds, lizard overlords, and government airplanes dispersing mind-control mist over population centers, not to mention presidential candidates who think and talk just like conspiracy theorists.
That term usually describes a person with beliefs that betray a lack of couth and sophistication, supposedly held by a minority—someone on the margins. Stripped of pejorative connotations, a conspiracy theorist, is a person who thinks that groups work in secret to influence events. Yet, this definition fails because it could apply to anyone who is aware of the Manhattan Project or the next iPhone update.
You could say a conspiracy theory must contain wild speculation or unsupportable allegations. This would notably include the work of most cable news pundits. Unfortunately, though, such a definition could also apply to diligent researchers conducting honest inquiries. Every investigation begins with speculation, and confirmation bias can never be avoided, only accounted for. What’s worse, successful conspiracies may be impossible to prove.
I propose a simpler definition: conspiracy theorists are shitty detectives. They are inquisitive minds who don’t know what questions to ask. They are knowledge-hunters forever lost in the weeds. They are epistemologists who constantly mistake correlation for causation, and who cannot begin to compensate for their own biases because they believe they already possess the answers.
They Can’t All Be True—Or Can They?
By any reckoning, America is a nation of conspiracy theorists. An online opinion survey on the presidential election conducted in late August by YouGov for The Economist asked citizens aged 18 and over if they agreed with the following statements:
(a) The U.S. government helped plan the attacks of 9/11;
(b) Some people have psychic powers such as telepathy, or the ability to move objects with their minds, that scientists ignore;
(c) The financial crash of 2008 was secretly orchestrated by a handful of Wall Street bankers;
(d) Airliners and other aircraft are being used to spray chemical trails into the upper atmosphere;
(e) Public health officials are deliberately withholding data that show vaccines and many other medications cause autism and other psychological disorders;
(f) The U.S. government and some private citizens have made contact with extraterrestrials.
The results showed that these disfavored opinions are anything but “fringe.” The questions drew anywhere from 15 to 30 percent support among all respondents (with 18 percent believing in “contact with extraterrestrials”). Among one subset of respondents—those who voted in major party primary elections, supposedly America’s most engaged and well-informed citizens—the average level of support for the six questions was 19 percent. Large measures of Trump and Clinton supporters alike embraced some of these conspiratorial beliefs. Interestingly, those who preferred neither major party candidate were on average significantly less likely to agree with any of the above theories.
The most popular conspiracy theory may be one that is closest to reality: that Wall Street financiers “secretly orchestrated” the 2008 crash.
It’s also interesting that the most popular conspiracy theory was the one that hewed closest to reality. Thirty percent of all respondents believed that a Wall Street cabal “secretly orchestrated” the 2008 crash. The lowest support for that theory (12 percent) was among GOP primary voters opposed to Trump, a coalition led by Wall Street Republicans. While it is no doubt wrong to say that Wall Street “orchestrated” the 2008 crash, it has been demonstrated that a few institutions such as Goldman Sachs did conspire against clients by betting against their own products, based on insider knowledge of an impending market shock. Tomato, tomahto; secret cabal, systemic corruption.
Some trends in the responses are easier to explain than others. Trump supporters were far and away most likely to believe the “vaccines-cause-autism” canard—no surprise, as Trump himself has promoted the idea. Curiously, though, supporters of Clinton—who said last year that “we may have been” visited by extraterrestrials and whose campaign chairman, John Podesta, has campaigned tirelessly for the declassification of UFO records—were half as likely as Trump or Sanders supporters to believe the government has been hiding the truth about space aliens.
It’s possible to study the Economist poll and conclude that anti-Trump Republicans are the most grounded folks in America, for they were the least likely to agree with any of the listed conspiracy theories. But that conclusion would be wrong. A separate question in the same poll revealed that nearly one-third of anti-Trump GOP primary voters agreed that “we are living in End Times as foretold by Biblical prophesy” and that “a person can find the future revealed in places like the Bible if only he or she knows how to read the signs.” Forty-five percent of the Never-Trumpers agreed that “the Bible is the literal word of God and without error.” So, history is a conspiracy.
Poll results like these are often used to justify reactionary and elitist campaigns against democracy. For if the public is so hopelessly stupid, why should they be allowed to govern? A Beltway libertarian academic, Jason Brennan, makes this case in his new book Against Democracy. Brennan argues for epistocracy, “rule of the knowledgeable,” a group he presumably defines to include himself. The book was favorably reviewed on a Washington Post blog by another Beltway libertarian academic. Similarly bold anti-democratic arguments are increasingly emerging not only inside the monarchist-fascist-anarchocapitalist spectrum of the “alt-right,” but also among establishment figures, including journalists such as Josh Barro, Fareed Zakaria, and Andrew Sullivan.
If wingnuts are to be barred from voting booths, what should be done about politicians espousing wingnut theories?
Cold War Kids
Take the woman most likely to become president. Clinton’s post-convention campaign has revolved around the suggestion that her opponent, Trump, is a witting or unwitting agent of the Russian “grand godfather,” Vladimir Putin. “We know that Russian intelligence services hacked into the DNC and we know that they arranged for a lot of those emails to be released and we know that Donald Trump has shown a very troubling willingness to back up Putin,” Clinton said on July 31.
But “we” don’t know jack. Neither Clinton, nor her surrogates, nor any U.S. government agency has yet provided the public with persuasive, verifiable evidence that “Russian intelligence services” conducted the attack. Anonymous sources telling reporters “signs point to Putin” does not constitute evidence. At least the Bush crew took the trouble to get some forged documents supporting the case for war in Iraq.
The Clintonites haven’t explained why the Russian ties of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, are more troubling than the Russian entanglements of the Clinton Foundation or of Clinton’s adviser, Podesta. Anyway, why is it worse for an American political figure to do business with Russia than, say, Saudi Arabia? No one has bothered to explain.
Clinton and her allies are promoting an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that exploits the Russophobia of the past century. The strength of those old Cold War reflexes is revealed every time some pundit mindlessly refers to Putin’s Russia as “the Soviet Union.” The prejudice is so ingrained that a supposedly serious newspaper floated the preposterous idea that Putin had Clinton poisoned after she and her campaign staff came down with pneumonia.
Suspicious even by political standards, Clinton has long demanded total control over every interaction with the public and the press. Her 1998 quip about the “vast right-wing conspiracy” inspired mockery, even though she was correct—they were out to get her and her husband. Being the target of such an intrigue must be traumatizing, but it doesn’t confer clairvoyance. If anything, such trauma can weaken one’s grip on reality. How many spies have slipped in to paranoid madness?
In any event, conspiracy theories are not confined to the right, as liberals have long suggested. The Green Party’s Stein defended her statements pandering to anti-vaxxers by claiming that the regulatory capture of the Food and Drug Administration somehow justifies “questions” about the nonexistent connection between vaccines and autism. She has also fueled a simmering panic that “kids’ brains” are threatened by exposure to WiFi signals—another false conspiracy theory that my reporting elsewhere has traced to quack hucksters selling protective crystal amulets. Meanwhile, Stein’s chosen running mate, Ajamu Baraka, has drowned in the deep end of the bird bath. Baraka’s contribution to a book entitled Another French False Flag? Bloody Tracks from Paris to San Bernardino, edited by the notorious Holocaust denier Kevin Barrett, was more significant and troubling than has been reported. Not only did Baraka permit his essay to appear in Barrett’s book, he promoted it, and in a recently removed Facebook post praised his fellow contributors as important “public intellectuals.” Baraka also appeared on Barrett’s radio program multiple times. In one of those interviews, Barrett bemoaned “an element of the population” engaged in a “mythological project” that “really falsifies the facts” about the Holocaust. Barrett also said “it was the Allies who were committing what would be more properly termed holocaust.” In response to this revisionist nonsense, Baraka replied, “Exactly.” He went on to say, “We have to penetrate the mythology and try to present a different picture.”
Their wording may be ambiguous but, at a minimum, Baraka and Stein were pandering to the peddlers of false and destructive conspiracy theories. To entertain such ideas in public without passing judgment is to promote them.
How hard is it for a candidate to say, “the Holocaust is not some ‘mythological project,’ it really happened”? Or, “vaccines don’t cause autism,” or, “solar radiation is far more dangerous than WiFi could possibly be”? Or, “that’s nonsense, I disagree”? Or, “we don’t know for sure who did the hack”?
Quite hard, apparently.
During his 2012 campaign, current Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson appeared on the Alex Jones show, Infowars. The host—not Jones but one of his flunkies—asked, “do you believe that the system is trying to create a one-world centralized government?” Johnson replied, “I think that that is a logical conclusion.” Maybe there is such a thing as too much weed.
A Man With a Very Good Brain Consults Himself
I don’t want to set up any false equivalencies among the candidates. In this contest, there is an unrivaled Grand Poobah of conspiracies laid bare, a man who strips away the veil of lies to reveal the stinking garbage pile beneath. No one connects the dots quite like he does. His initials are:
D for Demonic influence
J for the Jewish question
T for Totalitarian world government
Donald J. Trump has weighed in on every crackpot fantasy with a Geocities page except the “flat earth” theory, but only because no one has asked him about it. Trump has claimed that global warming is an elaborate hoax concocted by the Chinese to undermine American industry; that California water shortages were not a result of drought but of state officials “taking the water and shoving it out to sea”; that Ted Cruz’s dad was involved in the John F. Kennedy assassination; that the Clintons may have had Vince Foster killed; that Antonin Scalia might have been murdered, too; and that Barack Obama skipped Scalia’s funeral because it was held in a church instead of a mosque—because, as everyone has now heard, Obama is a secret Muslim.
Apprentice-era Trump’s first big political gambit, a trial balloon for his abortive 2012 campaign, was to promote bogus “Birther” theories questioning Obama’s citizenship. Last summer, Trump launched his current presidential bid by describing an epic war of subversion that had been covered up by the media, a strategy for reconquista by “the Mexican government” to flood the U.S. with “criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”
When this year Trump attacked the judge in his Trump University civil fraud case, he honed in on the judge’s membership in the La Raza Lawyers Association. Most people with a passing familiarity of U.S. civil rights history know la raza as a statement of Latino pride and solidarity akin to “we the people.” But others, ignorant or in denial of that history, knew La Raza as “the Mexican KKK,” because that’s how it is invariably described by the far-right conspiracy theorists in the Trumpist milieu.
“Your reputation is amazing,” Trump once told the conspiratorial radio host Alex Jones. “I will not let you down.”
Where might Trump get all of his crazy ideas? Perhaps from his spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, a 9/11 Truther. Perhaps from his newest campaign manager, Steve Bannon, head of the Breitbart News Network, an American Der Angriff for the digital age. Perhaps from his adviser, lobbyist, and friend, the “ratfucker” extraordinaire Roger Stone. In this election cycle, Stone has called for the execution of Bernie Sanders, George Soros, and Hillary Clinton, for imagined acts of treason. He has also claimed Clinton’s adviser Huma Abedin, as well as the bereaved military father and Democratic National Convention speaker Khizr Khan, are secret agents of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was Stone who urged Trump’s appearance on Infowars last December. Stone regularly feeds tips and rumors to Alex Jones and grants the occasional interview, too.
It’s also possible that Trump gets his ideas directly from Jones. “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down,” Trump told Jones during their interview last year. “Alex Jones: nice guy,” Trump said later at a rally.
The two men share a common gift. They are both virtuoso entertainers, grandiose and tireless. Those who dismiss Jones without having taken in his act often fail to recognize this. Without watching Jones perform, it may be hard to understand how this impassioned showman gained a bigger audience than the predictably one-note Breitbart or the dweeby, sanctimonious MSNBC.
Bankers For Marxism, Tripping Balls
For a whirlwind tour of the Jones experience, I suggest this nine-minute clip in which Jones, with amusing feigned reluctance, explains where psychedelic “clockwork elves” fit in the endlessly expanding puzzle of his mechanistic worldview. An excerpt:
Most of these old men you see at Bilderberg, there’s a reason they’re all whacked out of their minds—they’re taking DMT [dimethyltryptamine, a powerful hallucinogen] . . . They were jackin’ DMT seventy years ago. They were injecting it. They were in special tanks . . . It’s so hardcore people won’t even believe it. But that’s the stuff I never get in to because you’re not ready for it. The globalists don’t believe in Satanism, they believe they’re contacting inter-dimensional aliens through the drug use and through the electronic interface . . . They believe they’re in contact with these entities . . . and the entities are telling them, ‘eternal life, total power, total control, everything you could ever want, just kill everyone, set up a world government, build this design we’re telling you, build what we’re telling you, build this, build this, let us through, build the Hadron Collider, open the dimensions, let us in, we’re gonna really help you, WE’RE FRIENDLY LITTLE GUYS! DEMONS? ALIENS? DON’T EXIST? I DON’T KNOW! I only cover what I can prove.
Jones is nothing if not well read. The DMT elves were most famously described by the prolific mushroom shaman and “archaic revivalist” author Terence McKenna, whom Jones cites in this monologue along with “PKD”—Philip K. Dick, of course. For all the breadth and depth of his source material, Jones is a truly shitty detective. His conspiratorial cosmology connects goblin succubi, Satan’s minions, the nineteenth-century “Black Nobility,” MK-ULTRA, GMOs, and chemtrails to whatever random headlines cross his desk.
Infowars has been likened to a big-tent conspiracy clearinghouse, and some measure of its success owes to Jones’s canny agnosticism on the question of who “they” ultimately are, behind the curtain, pulling the strings.[*]
But there are recurring themes. Those who have studied Jones closely know that the core of his worldview is undiluted and unadorned Bircherism. According to a 2011 Rolling Stone profile, young Jones had his mind blown by John Birch Society spokesman Gary Allen’s 1971 book, None Dare Call It Conspiracy.[**] Indeed, Allen’s book hits the same themes that Jones does on his show for three hours a day and six days a week.
Allen claimed that communism was the latest gambit in a centuries-old scheme for global domination, a cynical scheme funded by New York bankers with deep ties to the Rothschild dynasty. The control exercised by high finance over this nominal opposition movement was so direct that, according to Allen, David Rockefeller once traveled to the Kremlin to “fire an employee”—Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Allen also wrote that Karl Marx cribbed his ideas from Order of the Illuminati founder Adam Weishaupt. The goal of this grand-historical conspiracy was to establish a unitary global slave state of which the United Nations was a critical precursor. A logical conclusion, indeed.
Jones alluded to all of this in his half-hour mutual admiration session with Trump.
Jones: Let’s get down to brass tacks.
Jones: I routinely talk to the top generals—Special Forces, Pentagon currently, out-of-the-Pentagon, CIA—as I know you do . . . They really know we’ve reached the crossroads where the country’s done, it’s a Third World nation, within a few more years . . .
Trump: Right. Right.
Jones: And there are globalists that want to have a world government—a system run by select crony capitalists, using socialism at the grass roots to make people dependent. And I’ve talked to not just high-level folks that have been in government that are on your team, but separately high-level people in government currently, that say there’s an internal war going on and you’re a manifestation of that . . .
Jones: I know now from top people that you actually are for real and you understand you’re in danger and you understand what you’re doing is epic, it’s George Washington-level, and you understand that office . . . Can you speak about the war for the soul of this country that’s happening right now and really tell people what’s happening?
Trump punted on Jones’s offer to “come out” with a full conspiratorial eschatology on air. But in all of his rambling responses Trump didn’t contradict anything Jones said. The general vibe of doom dovetailed perfectly with Trump’s own stage rhetoric, and he was content to let Jones supply the whys and wherefores. “I would agree with you, if we don’t get it right this time—I’m not sure if you go another four or eight years, with the insanity and the stupidity of these leaders, I’m not sure you’re going to turn it around anymore. I think it could be over.”
Ultimately it was a pretty boring segment. The candidate seemed uncharacteristically cautious. If I were Jones, I’d be a little worried that I flubbed my audition for the post-election Trump TV network. While disappointing as spectacle, the interview confirmed Jones’s status as the Birchers’ greatest living bannerman and, as a news anchor, more important than hapless clownfish Matt Lauer.
Jones is all too aware of his growing influence. This summer, he said, “not to toot my own horn,”
I was told . . . by the head of RT that Russia actually was aware of the New World Order and what was going on and that blah blah blah and Vladimir Putin, you know, liked what I was doing. And I was like, ‘that’s insane, that’s crazy.’ Then you get told that by people like Donald Trump… . . . And you realize, ‘wow, we do have that influence.’ We really do reach 28 million people, conservatively, every week . . . We’re growing exponentially . . . It’s not even that we’re that good, most people have just never read the books . . . Our version of reality is a lot closer than the false one. And so it’s just crazy. It comes out in the Syrian emails that [Bashar al-]Assad is reading Infowars and telling his people, ‘this is the truth, go with this’— that’s in the London Telegraph. You’ve got Putin . . . I had dinner with Nigel Farage, they’ve been huge listeners forever. He said most people when he goes and knocks on the door—this was like fifteen years ago—were my listeners . . . He said, ‘you woke most people up in England for me to do this.’ And I’m not bragging about what I’ve done . . . with [Matt] Drudge’s help, and others . . . I mean, it’s getting weird . . . There’s no doubt now, Infowars is really the tip of the spear.
After this segment, Jones cut to a promo for his online store, Infowars Life™, where he peddles Brain Force™ “nootropic” pills, herbal remedies for children, and Faraday cages for cell phones. “I’m doing free shipping on everything, whether it’s one ‘Hillary for prison’ shirt or a Bill Clinton rape shirt, or whatever it is, whatever informational warfare weapon you want to spread the word and meet like-minded people,” Jones said.
There are more of them than you think.
Who’s Laughing Now?
Why are Americans so fond of shitty detectives? How did a man like Jones come to be courted by aspirants for the highest executive office? Why is every presidential candidate either promoting some conspiracy theory or pandering to the people who believe them? The truth is out there. There must be an answer.
It cannot merely be the entertainment value of celebrity paranoiacs courting coronary thrombosis. There are limits to the comic appeal of a sweaty man ranting until his throat goes hoarse, his eyes bulge and his skin flushes red like a blinking Christmas light. (Chris Farley being the exception that proves the rule.)
The answer is not, as some suggest, that conspiracies provide simple explanations in a complex world. The theories themselves are often Byzantine and defy Occam’s razor.
Nor—as Richard Hofstadter suggested in his influential Harper’s essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”—does the paranoid impulse owe to some pathology of the conservative mind. What would explain Cynthia McKinney?
I suspect habituation and repetition may be part of the answer. The Birchers’ ideas have been in circulation for nearly 60 years, with quite a bit of money behind them. Mad theories about the Freemasons and the Illuminati are older than the United States.
More importantly, I think, people have forgotten what good detective work looks like. The past two decades have seen not only the disintegration of American journalism but also the rise of new media riddled with rabbit holes and self-reinforcing echo chambers, where potentially mind-warping texts such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are never more than a few hyperlinks removed from the front page of Reddit.
There is a final and perhaps critical factor: lived experience. The political assassinations, cover-ups and government crimes of the 1960s and 1970s fostered a bitter anti-government climate that helped pave the way for Ronald Reagan and the “wrecking crew.” Likewise, the torrent of lies following the 2000 “selection” of Bush, the 9/11 attacks, and the 2008 crash fostered deep cynicism that may only pass with the generations. On top of that are the everyday degradations of capitalism, which grow more intolerable by the year as inequality increases. In the workplace, the school, City Hall, the county jail, the local hospital, the corner grocery store—in basically every institution, public and private, at every scale—Americans are constantly lied to, exploited, gaslighted, and abused.
Is it any wonder they see conspiracies everywhere? Their outrage is justified, their instincts correct. They are wanting only for better detectives, reliable narrators, and some measure of justice.
[*] Jones has denounced Nazis and anti-Semitism often enough for some white nationalists to dismiss him as a Zionist stooge. Other anti-Semites, however, have rallied to Jones’s defense, noting that he consistently attacks Jewish political figures without explicitly noting their religion. Indeed, Jones frequently refers to “Rothschild fronts” and the Mossad as nefarious actors, and he does traffic in updated versions of old Nazi tropes, such as his recent suggestion that Black Lives Matter is a pawn of “globalists” like George Soros who seek to sow disunity through demographic warfare. Perhaps the closest Jones came to professing anti-Semitism was in 2008, when he said: “Every key person in the Bush administration and now in this next administration just so happen to be the sons and daughters of the founders of Israel . . . That’s the headline in Israel, ‘we run the White House, we’ve got the White House.’ But I’m an American citizen, I’m not supposed to mention that? Is it not enough that Israel had fingerprints all over 9/11?”
[**] One of Gary Allen’s four children grew up to be an influential mainstream political reporter—Mike Allen, who wrote Politico’s early-morning “Playbook” feature until this July. Mike Allen has claimed that although he was proud of his father, he never cracked the covers of a single Gary Allen book. It’s that sort of curiosity and forthrightness that made Mike Allen one of the top hacks in the Beltway. When Gary died at age 50 of a “liver ailment” in 1986, Mike was able to reel off sales figures and other information about None Dare Call It Conspiracy to a Los Angeles Times obit writer. But he never read so much as a page? None dare call it bullshit.